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Leaflet vs. OpenLayers 3: Which is the better client-side JavaScript mapping library?

Customers often ask us, “Which is the best client-side JavaScript mapping library to use when building a modern web app with the Map Suite WebAPI Edition?” Like a lot of things in Software Development, the answer isn’t always clear. The answer depends on your requirements and development preferences. Since both frameworks are well documented and work solidly on mobile devices, we usually ask the following questions to help our customers make the right decision.

How simple is mapping portion of the app you are building?

The simpler the mapping requirements, the more we lean toward using Leaflet. Leaflet does a fantastic job of handling the most common mapping tasks like consuming base map tiles, panning, and zooming, and its API is easy to understand and simple to use. Once you go beyond the common tasks, however, you need to use Leaflet Plugins and this where things become more complicated. There might be functionality that you are looking for that unfortunately doesn’t exist.

If you have a feature rich application with lots of functionality, we gravitate toward using OpenLayers 3. OpenLayers 3 has a larger and more complex API that will allow you to do all of the common mapping functions that Leaflet does plus many more. For example, if your application has requirements involving map projection, OpenLayers 3 will allow you to accomplish these requirements more easily than if you are using Leaflet. Of course, with a more robust API comes a steeper learning curve, so keep that in mind when providing estimates to your project stakeholders.

How much JavaScript code do you want to write?

Since Leaflet is a higher level API than OpenLayers 3, it usually takes less JavaScript code to get it up and running. Once you want to deviate from the standard functionality that Leaflet provides, however, it is likely that you will end up writing a lot of code unless there is a plug-in that meets your exact needs. On the other hand, OpenLayers 3 is a lower level API which requires more JavaScript coding to initialize and set up the map. This can be convenient when you have customized and complex requirements, as the API allows more control over the map and your data.

Summary

In closing, there are times when it’s best to use Leaflet and times when OpenLayers 3 wins out. If your mapping requirements are simple, it’s in your best interest to check out Leaflet first. But if you’re looking for a mapping library that is more customizable and don’t mind getting dirty with JavaScript development, reach for OpenLayers 3.

Since both libraries have their strengths, we have included code samples for both Leaflet and OpenLayers 3 with the Map Suite WebAPI Edition that can be downloaded and viewed viewed here. These samples are useful resources when deciding which client-side Javascript mapping library to use for your app because you can see first-hand the different user experiences and coding requirements between the two libraries.

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